Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

ODD MONUMENTS

In Cumbria recently, I visited two monuments which – it occurred to me – oddly have something in common.  I’ll get back to that.

Heading for the Maryport Literature & Arts festival in March, I stopped off at Penrith and walked up Penrith Beacon, a fine precipitous wooded hill (‘fell’ in local parlance) overlooking the town. It’s a steep climb up through birch and pine, on sandy soil and passing several of the sandstone quarries from which the blocks for Penrith’s red houses and public buildings were once carved out.

At the top is the ‘Beacon’ itself, a pointed stone building which people will tell you is where beacon fires were lit to warn the locals of marauding armies approaching from Scotland. I’m sceptical about this: for a start the existing building doesn’t look old enough – it could just conceivably have been built in 1745 after the last Jacobite rebellion, when a Scottish army did indeed come through here heading for defeat at Preston. But it’s surely no older than that.

More importantly, there’s no way you could light a beacon-fire in it: it has a roof on the top and only small openings. A real beacon would have been some sort of raised platform with a metal fire-basket on top.  And sure enough, in front of the tower there is a raised patch with the remains of some stone paving. That’s surely where the real beacon was. Meanwhile we have this attractive little tower – a folly really – into which past visitors have carved their wonderfully neat graffiti, in the days when perfect handwriting and manual skills were compulsory, and carving your name on a public monument was perfectly acceptable.

Last summer, Amanda and I came up here with the poet Keiron Winn and his wife (also called Amanda). We explored the Beacon, and Kieron got me to read the passage about Penrith Beacon from Wordsworth’s Prelude, describing his memory of getting lost in the mist there as a child, finding the site of an old gibbet where ‘A murderer had been hanged in iron chains’ and then, ‘Reascending the bare common, saw / A naked pool that lay beneath the hills’ and met ‘A Girl that bore a pitcher on her head’ – and recalled the whole experience as unutterably strange: ‘I should need / Colours and words that are unknown to man / To paint the visionary dreariness /Which…Invested moorland waste and naked pool…’ Dreary for the young Wordsworth, to us the excursion on the Beacon was the delightful occupation of a summer’s day.

THEN last week I went up to Ulverston to see my old friend, the poet Neil Curry. We had a good lunch at the Rose and Crown (huge portions, good beer) and after we parted again I decided to walk up Hoad Hill, to Sir John Barrow’s Monument.

Barrow (1804-45), born near Ulverston, was a Secretary to the Admiralty, and responsible for numerous polar exploration expeditions, many of which came to grief with serious loss of life.  In those days it was all seen as part of the glorious adventure of Empire, and Barrow was commemorated with a massive memorial. The Admiralty contributed to the cost, on condition that the monument be built so that it could be used as a lighthouse if ever needed.

It never was, so here it is: a handsome lighthouse with no light or function. It struck me that a ‘beacon’ that could never be lit, and a ‘lighthouse’ with no lamp, made a good pair. So here they are together!

KEATS’S FIRST WATERFALL

In Ambleside a few days ago to give a lecture, I decided to spend the afternoon walking up to Stockghyll Force, the lovely small waterfalls in the woods uphill behind Ambleside. The weather had been rainy so the Force was full and quite spectacular.

Stockghyll has always been a favourite of mine, and especially so because Keats wrote about it so wonderfully. He came here with his friend Brown, when they were on their walking tour to Scotland in 1818. In a  letter to his brother Tom, Keats wrote:

“The different falls have as different characters; the first darting down the slate-rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan – the third dashed into a mist  –  and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these. We afterwards moved away a space, and saw nearly the whole more mild, streaming silverly through the trees. What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever…”

What I had not realised until I revisited the passage is that Keats described this as ‘The first waterfall I ever saw’! He had been to the country around London before, and to Sussex, previously, but not travelled widely; and had never previously visited mountainous country. So Stockghyll Force was his ‘first waterfall’.

And I love the way the passage shows Keats feeling that the landscape is alive, that it speaks to him and has a consciousness: ‘the intellect, the countenance of such places’.

And the sense that the place, and nature itself as manifested here, will enable him to ‘learn poetry’. Coming from Keats, that is deeply impressive.

If you visit the Stockghyll yourself, you can see how your impressions of the falls compare with Keats’s. Their different ‘characters’: arrow…fan…mist…or however you see them for yourself. Keats is teaching us how to look!

Walking back from the main falls along the bank, I noticed a point where a smaller beck came out to join the main one, from under a mysterious archway in the rocks:

So I climbed up into the ‘tunnel’, fascinated to see where it would lead, even at the cost of getting some water in one of my boots. And guess what? Turned out the beck was just passing under the path I’d previously climbed, and I’d walked over the top of it half an hour before without noticing. Never mind, I had the excitement of seemingly exploring that mysterious tunnel into apparently mysterious unknown territory!

When you’re out for a walk, everything can be an adventure.

MARGARET CROPPER: REDISCOVERING A LAKELAND POET

Margaret Cropper (1886-1980) is a poet about whom I’ve long been enthusiastic. I discovered her work when I was preparing my Literary Guide to the Lake District – her poems turned up in the Manchester Central Library and I’d never heard of her.

I read her narrative poem Little Mary Crosbie and was stunned: it’s a vivid, moving account of the fostering of an eight-year-old girl from a Children’s Home and it gives a magnificent, compassionate account of her experience, and of the Local Authority’s almost-successful attempt to claw her back into the Home.

It’s full of compassion, tinged with dialect, and beautifully written.

Margaret Cropper lived in Burneside, Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland), and wrote a number of medium-length narrative poems about local life, as well as quite a number of short lyrics. Her poems were written in the 1930s, and deserve to be looked at alongside the socially-conscious left-wing poetry of the day – though Cropper herself was a Christian, and albeit a pacifist was not a Socialist as far as I can tell.

Her work was admired by Norman Nicholson and John Betjeman but she never found a major London publisher. The copy I have was published by Titus Wilson of Kendal.

I’m giving a lecture on her work at 6.30pm on Tuesday 6 February at Cumbria University, the Ambleside Campus (the one that used to be Charlotte Mason College). It’s free. Do come if you can.

Tickets from: www.ticketsource.co.uk/cultural-landscapes

In the current re-valuation of women’s writing, we need a Woman Lakeland Poet – and here she is! Margaret Cropper should be rediscovered, and I hope to begin the process with my lecture.

See you there!

 

CHARLES WILLIAMS: The Novels Renewed!

I’m delighted today to receive three volumes of the new edition of the novels of Charles Williams being produced by the US publisher Apocryphile.  They’ve designed the covers beautifully, and these are really the first edition to do justice to these amazing books since they first appeared in the 1930s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to write new Introductions for these three – it was exciting to have the challenge of rereading and rethinking the books from a modern perspective and inviting new readers to enjoy them.

Charles Williams’s unique spiritual thrillers are unlike the work of any other writer. If you haven’t yet discovered them, you should give them a try, preferably in these elegant new editions.

I would recommend Many Dimensions as an ideal place to start, though opinions vary.

Williams’s unique blend of suspense and action with deep spiritual insight is unique. There’s no one else like him.  As T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world. ..To him the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural was also supernatural. And this…provides both the immediate thrill, and the permanent message of his novels.’

Ian Marriott: Touched

Sometimes a book of poems comes along that I really want to draw attention to. Such a book is Ian Marriott’s pamphlet collection Touched, just published by the excellent Cinnamon Press.

Ian Marriott’s poems are remarkably economical: invariably he uses very small brief stanzas, each one provoking thought before you move on to the next. There is something haiku-like, or at any rate contemplative about his stanzas: you feel the need to pause an reflect on each one before you move on to the next. The title Touched seems to refer to this quality as much as anything. The poems touch us, or require us to touch them in reading.

Not that the touch is necessarily comforting. Marriott’s poems can be bleak, and have a way of using unsparing and even harsh images from nature to communicate human experience.

For much of Touched, this seems to be experience of trauma. The book opens with a nine-page sequence (but don’t be alarmed: that’s nine small pages of nine tiny stanzas…) –

The abandoned child
plays and replays
his loop of pain
until in the end
there’s little else…
Both oppressor
and oppressed –
in a single body
the bully, and abused.

Those lines tell – or show, rather – something I’d never seen before but which makes perfect emotional sense. I guess we can all identify with it, and many of us find something inside us that answers.

Images from nature are offered which are both exact in themselves and psychologically acute, as in the section called ‘Pond Skater’:

A Fön wind
from the wrong quarter
upends me –
or the slow dark
of a rising trout.
So perilous
this thin meniscus –
six legs splayed out.

Yes, I had to Google ‘Fön wind’ too: more often spelt foehn or Föhn, it’s a dry downhill wind off a mountain (it’s called the Chinook in the Rockies); maybe Marriott was a bit unwise to use this unfamiliar term, but at least we’ve learnt a new word and fact. But more important, it’s a lovely piece of natural observation; but we realise that the pond skater is also the emotional human self – so easily thrown, disturbed, or plunged into depression. we all know the feeling.

Later in the same sequence I found an unforgettable section, odd, grotesque and cheerful – at least, I think cheerful and find it so, ultimately – like something straight out of a Lowry painting:

Front leg missing,
one hundred percent dog –
he loped towards us
without an ounce
of self pity –
that whole, un-whole body,
muscled and twisting
against its loss.

An image to contemplate, unforgettable. And there are the quiet observations of nature and people, each small stanza a thing that yields more each time you ponder it:

INVERARY, SEPTEMBER

A grey heron
hunched on the tide,
shoreline always
a sense of becoming –
day-trippers slip
from city buses,
here to measure
their lives.

Ian Marriott is a writer to enjoy – and to contemplate. Order his fine pamphlet from Cinnamon Press here: https://cinnamonpress.com/image/  and his previous book The Hollow Bone here: https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/products/the-hollow-bone-by-ian-marriott

Ian will be reading at Manchester Poets – Chorlton Library, M21 9PN, 7.30 pm on Friday 22 April. Or if you’ve missed him, why not follow one of those links and buy one of his publications?